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How to Play Big-Game Fish on a Saltwater Fly Rod

Hanging On In There on Fly-Fishing Tackle

Most of the articles on saltwater fly-fishing tend to concentrate on just about everything needed to get into the sport, except what can be the most vital element, what do you do when you finally hook a big fish?

Just a couple of years ago I hooked a brown trout very close to 4.5 kg. (10lbs.) that took me just over thirty minutes to get to the boat for release. This was at Lake Otamangakau, central North Island, NZ, and where I was fishing the water was only about 3 metres deep. My arms and wrists were very tired after that fight.

yellowfin tuna

Then I talked to Mark Kitteridge, Now Editor of NZ Fisherman Magazine, about his World Record 37 kg. (82lbs.) Yellowfin tuna on fly-fishing gear. This fish took around three and a bit hours to land. We heard a lot more about this capture and it was worth re-hearing. It was a very fine feat of salt-water fly-fishing.

Any capture of a tuna of this size on any gear is going to give the angler a good workout, but on fly-fishing gear, now that is something else. In talking to me about this capture, Mark spent some minutes on the sheer strain of hanging on. In fact he told me that when the fish finally got to the boat, he was feeling at the time if the fish made another run that might be it, all over.

Knowing very well what a tenacious, stubborn bloke Mark is, (he worked with me in my tackle shop for 10 years), I am sure it would not have been the end, but for Mark to admit even thinking about it, shows just how tired and hurting he must have been.

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The truth is that true fly-fishing gear is not
primarily designed for fighting fish.

The primary design consideration is how well the system will cast a fly. Most of the time spent fly-fishing is in fact spent fly-casting. So the fly-rod is not a terribly efficient fish-fighting device for big fish.

The first problem with a fly-rod is the fact that it is relatively long, usually around nine feet. This tends to place the point of leverage further toward the fish, hence placing more leverage on the angler end of the rod.

The second problem is usually based around the reel. Most of us will be using direct drive reels, that is when you turn the reel handle once the reel spool turns once. When a fish takes-off you are faced with a big winding job - very hard on the wrists.

The third problem is related to the first.

The best angle to hold a fly-rod in a fight is 45 degrees to the surface of the water.

At this angle the rod exerts its optimum pressure on the fish. Lift the rod higher, or lower the rod, and the pressure on the fish eases.

In very general terms it is often of very little benefit to 'pump and wind' on a fly-rod. The amount of lift gained is usually very small but it is the constant pressure exerted through the fly-rod that helps to eventually defeat the fish.

But maintaining this pressure means the angler's arms, wrists, and fingers are in for a lot of punishment - there are no harnesses to lean on. (Although some anglers re now using them, but I think that negates the whole fly-fishing thing - more soon).

The other problem for those of us who cannot afford very expensive fly-reels with an anti-reverse system, is the problem that on a direct-drive reel, when the fish runs and pulls line off the reel, the spool and its handles spin like a demented dervish.

Knuckle busting stuff on one hand - on the other hand if you manage to hold onto the reel handles for just a moment or two too long, you stand a good chance of busting your leader.

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So once you have a fish on your line, what tactics can be employed to maximise your chances of landing that big fish?

The first thing actually starts in gear preparation.

Set the drag setting with the fly line off the reel and well into the backing.

Remember that as the diameter of the line on the spool decreases - drag increases.

Set the drag with the fly-line pulled right through the rod, and the rod held at 45 degrees.

When the fish makes its first run (and any subsequent runs), keep the rod tip low, with just enough bend to maintain some lift on the line, so that if the fish comes to a sudden halt there will be little slack in the water. Use this time to ease the strain on your body and get some rest.

Once the fish stops running get as much line in as you can, as quickly as possible. It should be an aim to fight the fish as close to the boat as possible. The least line out in the water the better.

As you wind keep half an eye on the rod tip, if this ducks down, get your hands off the reel. The sudden ducking of the rod tip is usually the first sign that the fish is bolting. If the run is a long one let the rod-tip down toward the water, and get some rest.

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Whichever arm is holding the rod, try and keep at least a small bend in that arm.

Many anglers, on all sorts of gear have the rod-arm fully extended, figuring that a straight line to the rod is the strongest. Bad news.

Our arms, shoulders, and wrists do not perform well under a constant direct-pull load. You are relying on your cartilage and tendons, and fingers to hold everything together.

Very bad news for your joints - as anyone that has suffered from tennis elbow or 'frozen shoulder' will attest. A small bend in the arm brings your muscles into play and allows the hand to take some of the load of actually holding the rod.

There is another issue about which arm is holding the rod - too many anglers - in this country at least hold their rod in their weak arm (left arm if you are right-handed) and wind with the left. It does not take too much practice to learn to hold the rod in your right (and strongest) arm and wind with the left.

"Bow to The Fish"

If the fish jumps, use the trout fishing technique, and 'bow to the fish', which is just a term for quickly lowering the rod tip to the surface of the water.

A fly-line picks up considerable drag when it is moved sideways through the water. If you do not put some slack in the water when a fish jumps, you can easily pop the leader, or pull the hook out. Bowing to the fish also puts some slack in the line so if the fish falls back on the line it is less likely to break it.

The drag on the fly-line can also be a factor if a fish is down deep below the boat and decides to take off parallel to the surface. Lowering the rod tip, and lowering the drag can help here.

But, overall, defeating a big fish on fly-fishing gear is being prepared to 'hang on in there'.

Maintaining constant pressure on the fish throughout the fight, and being prepared to move toward success in a series of relatively small gains is usually the best fighting tactic.

It requires intense concentration, and plenty of stamina. Attempting to shorten the fight by a sudden or drastic action will almost certainly achieve the aim of shortening the fight - by losing the fish.

Reading back over what I have written above, and having been well and truly done-over by some Three Kings Islands king-sized yellowtail kingfish, various tuna, and 3 or 4 smallish striped marlin on fly-fishing gear, only increases my admiration for those that manage to land big, big-game fish on a fly-rod. The rest of us can carry on dreaming, and hanging in there till we get our chance to test our skills.


There is, as I wrote earlier, a trend to using shorter fly rods, harnesses and rod buckets. Many times in big-game fly-fishing the fish are 'teased' close to the boat so casting is not a big issue, but harnesses and rod buckets seem to me to be moving away from fly-fishing.

It gets worse; some of these so called fly-rods are that in name only. They feature a soft tip section, just able to flick a fly, but the butt section is pure stand-up game fishing rod.

There is another aspect that does worry me and others.

IGFA rules demand that the fly may not be trolled, it must be cast.

So there are some anglers and charter skippers out there who are so hell bent on getting records, winning contests, or pocketing large tips, that they bend this rule. They bend it by teasing a fish in to the back of the boat, then put the boat out of gear, at the same time the angler flicks the fly out over the transom. The 'way' of the boat 'trolls' the fly.

Still I suppose there are in any sport a few who think that bending the rules is OK. Anyone who has a record by cheating, but still displays the certificate and photos, is kidding no one. They are waiting for a deck hand to have a fight with his boss and spill the beans - the next time this happens it will not be the first!

fish illustration by Bish

Article written by Tony Bishop

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